Here we go again. After fifteen years of bitter polarization, a new cycle of violent unrest has once more sent Venezuela’s political future into uncertainty.
Beginning in early February in the western state of Táchira, but quickly intensifying mid month after clashes between anti-government demonstrators and police in Caracas left three people dead, protests led primarily by opposition students have spread to Venezuela’s major cities. So far they have remained largely confined to middle class areas, with diffuse demands that have shifted over time. Initially directed against dramatic crime rates, the early arrest of several students sparked solidarity demonstrations over their release. As those spread, what began as protests over insecurity were overshadowed by cryptic calls for La Salida
—The Exit—spearheaded by radical sectors of the opposition that have long been involved in efforts to oust the government, constitutionally or otherwise. In response, the government of Nicolás Maduro, whose leadership after edging a narrow victory last April remains unsteady amid worsening social and economic conditions, responded aggressively against what it saw as an attempt at destabilization at a time of fragility in the heart of the Bolivarian Revolution.
Over the next two weeks violence rapidly escalated, fueled in part by claims of intimidation by armed pro-government civilians, and in part by opposition rumors and misinformation spread on social media. Excesses by police and National Guard have resulted in leadership shakeups, formal investigations, and several arrests of security personnel. In and around middle class neighborhoods youths have and continue to set up increasingly lethal barricades condemned even by mainstream opposition sectors. Meanwhile in the western capital of San Cristóbal, where protests began, army troops have been deployed amid scattered lootings, continuing opposition blockades, and vague reports of infiltration by paramilitaries from bordering Colombia. As of this writing, 20 are confirmed dead on both sides, with scores injured and dozens more still detained nationwide.
It’s hard to shake the feeling of déjà vu. After all, the protests’ most visible faces—Leopoldo López and Maria Corina Machado—have long been among the Bolivarian government’s staunchest antagonists, including—notably—their active support of the failed 2002 coup against Hugo Chávez. The so-called guarimbas (road blocks) that have overshadowed peaceful protests in the last two weeks first gained popularity in 2004 as a way to disrupt daily life and provoke mass unrest. The prominence of youth in the demonstrations recalls protests in 2007 over the government’s decision not to renew the broadcast license of opposition station RCTV; then as now, students were at the forefront of street protests, many of them turned violent. Then as now, clashes between government officials and international and domestic media have fueled cries of bias, censorship, and self-censorship.
But it would be a mistake to see the latest unrest as another blip in a now-longstanding pattern of tense stalemate punctuated by periods of violent upheaval. Instead, two intersecting elements should raise alarms about Venezuela’s near-term political future.
The first is a weak government confronting major social and economic crises that even officials and supporters acknowledge. Fifty six percent inflation, worsening shortages, a sinking currency, and insecurity rates that are by all accounts severe—even if the precise figures are a matter of debate—have plagued Nicolás Maduro’s fledging administration. Accounts of course vary on their depth and causes. Opponents blame mismanagement, corruption, and too great an emphasis on social spending over investments in the productive apparatus. Government officials point to speculation, hoarding, and currency manipulation—part of a broader program of economic warfare by saboteurs at home and abroad. Analysts have instead drawn attention to the distortions of a mixed socialist and capitalist economy where, despite strategic expropriations and increased social spending by the state, most industry and business remains in private sector hands.
But beyond debates over what or who is to blame lies the very real discontent that these various crises have generated among the population at large—including among many middle-of-the-road chavistas whose support for the government is based more on performance than on ideology. This discontent was on display last April when Maduro, Hugo Chávez’s chosen candidate to succeed him as president, won by a razor-thin margin over opposition governor Henrique Capriles, whom Chávez had trounced just six months earlier. Maduro’s narrow election exposed major weaknesses in the Bolivarian Revolution, in large part and paradoxically, as a consequence of its own successes. Increased access to health care, education, and food, through both direct and indirect state spending, lifted millions out of poverty under Chávez. It also increased consumer demand in ways that domestic production has proven unable to meet, generating shortages that find immediate solution through imports that, in turn, limit the government’s ability to spend at home.
Navigating the crisis has sorely tested Maduro, who lacks his predecessor’s ability—and natural leadership—to keep order among a long-fractious chavista coalition. While revolutionaries insist on deepening socialism through more expropriations, communal development, and popular power, moderates call for structural reforms to stabilize the economy, and for political rapprochement with the opposition to ease the climate of confrontation, even if doing so risks alienating chavismo’s ideological base.
As Maduro struggles to negotiate internal rifts, so too does the opposition, creating a second combustible factor. The opposition has long included radical and moderate elements. A moderate wing represented by Capriles has, at long last and still tentatively, accepted the logic of a state that protects the social and economic rights of its citizens, realizing that if it is to reach power—and stay there—it has to build a majority from the bottom up, with popular sector support. But this is a long-term strategy, achieved through the hard and daily work of organizing locally over time.
Meanwhile, radicals have never fully recognized the legitimacy of the government and its supporters. They imagine chavistas, instead, as interlopers, and look for a quick end to chavismo either directly by way of a coup, or indirectly by stoking the instability that might bring about the collapse of the government. This opposition sector dismisses the long term strategy of building an electoral base that draws from disaffected government supporters, either because it feels it has majority support already (masked by fraudulent elections) or because it feels that majority support is inconsequential to the righteousness of its cause. They defend the concepts of liberty and freedom in terms of civil and political rights that speak to middle classes, not social and economic ones that appeal to popular sectors.
And yet, emboldened by the close results of the April election, Capriles embraced a risky move by the opposition MUD coalition to turn the December mayoral elections into a referendum on Maduro. Just when the government stood feeblest—and polls throughout last summer reported precipitous drops in Maduro’s popularity—the MUD’s plebiscitary strategy reinforced the idea of an opposition whose main program was to get rid of the chavista government, and with it any gains popular sectors had made under Chávez. Absent any real effort at building grassroots support among popular sectors, otherwise-disaffected chavistas voted for chavista candidates, understanding the election as a vote over either a central government that despite its problems had stood for them in the past, or an opposition without a credible alternative to the growing ails of day to day life.
Electoral returns showed that the referendum strategy failed, with government candidates scoring a 10-point victory over opposition candidates, and Capriles and his brand of moderation severely weakened among hardline government opponents. As a result, Capriles and other opposition governors and mayors began calling more strongly for the opposition to build a true electoral majority based on actual alternatives drawn from working closely with popular sectors. And while the returns gave Maduro a crucial political victory and renewed mandate, they did nothing to abate acute social and economic problems. This helps to explain why throughout January, elected officials in both the government and in the opposition actively engaged in working groups to coordinate national, state, and local-level responses to Venezuela’s severe insecurity crisis. As part of those meetings Capriles shook hands with Maduro in a dramatic gesture of de-escalation. Despite mistrust and early skepticism, opposition governor Henri Falcón would go on to acknowledge that the discussions were proving promising and productive. At the same time, Maduro’s government began to float, and even implement, a series of economic measures long urged by economists and business leaders, like easing the flow of dollars to the private sector and signaling willingness to reduce costly subsidies on the price of gasoline—a politically unpopular move that even some in the opposition rejected.
This rapprochement on the part of Maduro’s government and elected officials of the opposition seemed to reflect genuine recalibration towards the center. Following a difficult year that left both sides reeling, both chavistas and the opposition had been looking ahead to the opportunity to regroup during an unprecedented two-year lull in scheduled elections. Indeed at first glance, the two-year electoral lapse seemed to provide the perfect cover opportunity for de-escalation. For Maduro, it gave some time before the next round of elections to implement difficult and unpopular measures to stem the social and economic crisis without suffering immediate political costs. For the mainstream opposition—notably Capriles—two years ahead of the next scheduled elections would allow, at long last, an opportunity to do the work of building links with popular sectors most affected by key problems like inflation and insecurity.
And yet, as the rapid escalation of protests now suggests, while the electoral lapse served as an incentive to moderation among some, it also catalyzed the frustration of radical sectors already primed to distrust both the government and the moderate opposition. Two years in this context seemed too long a time to wait for another opportunity to oust Maduro, and too long a time to risk capitulating to a regime that would use the two years not to moderate, but to radicalize, mining any real institutional possibility to remove the government electorally.
In short, the two-year lapse in elections was an invitation for radicals—for whom destabilization was a necessary strategy for survival—to activate. In this context, a small student protest over insecurity in San Cristóbal in early February yielded three arrests. In short order, students elsewhere staged protests not over specific social and economic issues that might appeal broadly, but over the immediate release of their fellow students. But radicals could now deploy a critical and numerically small mass of people in the streets as either foil or fodder. Foil for those in the government who can plausibly point to protests as a destabilizing effort to oust the government extra-constitutionally, legitimizing therefore a repressive response incommensurate with the scale, if not the intensity, of the demonstrations. Fodder for those in the radical opposition who uphold demonstrators as liberty-minded youth concerned with the defense of democracy through the ousting of a government that violates the civil and political rights of its opponents.
Por ahora, hardliners in the opposition have crystallized their demands around calls for Maduro’s resignation and new elections. Opposition youth meanwhile have pledged to remain on the streets and have rejected any efforts at negotiation. They have earned the condemnation of student movement leaders in places like Chile, for whom their Venezuelan counterparts represent the interests of neo-liberal forces seeking to rein in social spending by the state and curtail popular access to public health care, education, and natural resource wealth—the very issues that have informed the struggles of Chilean students. Camila Vallejo—now in Congress but once the firebrand student leader who was the darling of the international media—has gone further to denounce opposition students in Venezuela as part of a right-wing plot to topple the Bolivarian government.
More moderate opposition voices have dismissed calls for Maduro’s resignation, demanding instead the release of detainees, an end to state violence and media censorship, and negotiations with the government to address specific issues of crime, inflation, and shortages. For its part, the Maduro government has convened talks to do precisely that, and while passions remain high and mistrust intense, important sectors of both camps have begun the difficult task of taking up anew the thread of strategic, mutually beneficial cooperation that had begun in January.
Though demonstrations continue, with disquieting upticks in violence in recent days, most of the intense conflict has abated or has tended to focalize in a few areas of Caracas, San Cristóbal, and other major cities. Indeed, beyond any differences in context and structure between this and previous moments of unrest, one important common thread remains: the geography of protest. As they have for nearly fifteen years, protests today remain largely confined to middle class areas, revealing perhaps most dramatically the opposition’s continued inability to connect with popular sectors that form the core of support for the government.
What seems clear after a month of protests is that in the short term, the government of President Maduro has won a reprieve. They have severely hampered Capriles’ message of long-term support building, reminding popular sectors that might otherwise be receptive to an alternative to chavismo that the opposition has little interest in their concerns. But they have also postponed difficult decisions and discussion by Maduro’s government around social and economic issues that remain grave. For Maduro, then, while strengthened momentarily, the bigger challenge will come from confronting not these protests, but the ones that may yet to come when opposition hardliners leave the streets.
Alejandro Velasco is Assistant Professor of Latin American Studies at New York University’s Gallatin School. A historian, he writes and teaches on modern Venezuela.